Today I walked on the train tracks of Kibera toward Kibera Girls Soccer Academy (KGSA). The air is filled with dust and reggae music. Immediately to either side of the tracks are stray dogs lounging in front of stands selling everything from bananas to charcoal, haircuts to electronics. In the distance is a sea of corrugated tin roofs. Gorgeous kids in school uniforms yell, “Mzungu!” (white person), try their English with a, “How are you?” in a British accent, or reach out to grab my pale arm. KGSA, the girls school where I am spending my days, is a small haven. A clean, quiet space in the middle of the slum where real learning is happening. One young woman, between bites of her beans and rice in the open courtyard, tilts her head at me, offers me her fist to meet with mine and says calmly, “I am Emma. Welcome.” After a year of anticipation, I met Asha on her nineteenth birthday. She shook my hand excitedly amidst giggling.
The first order of business that I was able to witness was a meeting with a few of the students, a few of the administrators, and an architect. The school has applied for many grants in hopes of expanding the school to include dormitories to house the girls who are the most vulnerable to poverty and violence at home. The first meeting consisted of the girls telling the architect how they envisioned the space. This, the second meeting, had the architect at the board drawing their design, hammering out some details. “I love doing architecture in other cultures because each place has their own ideas of what should be next to what. Architecture is cultural, so they need to design the buildings themselves so it feels like theirs. I just help them see what is possible and help them think about sustainability and health concerns like air flow,” he said after the meeting. The school administrators let the girls speak of their dreams and visions before they spoke. There was much excitement and laughter. If fundraising goes according to plan, building will start in January.
Abdul, the founder of the school, addressed the teachers, “This year we are focusing on the quality of the education. If we get the money to build this, there will be no more excuses. The girls will have a stable place to live. You must deliver in the classroom.”
Abdul also took me to a primary school in the slum. There were four classes in a single room, divided by thin pieces of plywood. The kids stood when I walked in and sang me a welcome song in unison. Abdul pointed out on our way out how close it was to the train tracks. “When the train derails, which happens now and then, the kids in the school are in danger.” KGSA is partnering with this primary school to help them move to a larger space that is less dangerous and more conducive to learning.
I am aware after my first day in Kenya how important location is to education. There are primary kids learning in spaces that are loud, crowded and dangerous. There are secondary kids who only feel safe and supported during their school day at KGSA. Learning is happening, but more learning can happen as all the spaces these young people congregate in– home and school– are safe and supportive.